Manitoba and Caribou

(Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

Start Breaking My Heart (2001), 7/10
Up In Flames (2003), 7.5/10
Caribou: The Milk Of Human Kindness (2005), 7/10
Caribou: Andorra (2007), 6.5/10
Caribou: Swim (2010), 5/10
Caribou: Our Love (2014), 5/10
Daphni: Jiaolong (2012), 5/10
Daphni: Joli Mai (2017), 4/10
Caribou: Suddenly (2020), 5/10
Daphni: Cherry (2022), 5/10

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Canadian (Ontario) producer Dan Snaith (aka Manitoba) debuted with Start Breaking My Heart (Leaf, 2001) in the vein of the glitch-pop electronica propounded by the likes of Boards Of Canada and Four Tet. The syncopated, bouncy People Eating Fruit with a children's choir intoning a simple singalong (his first single) was merely the surface of his experiment. On one hand there are delicate ambient-exotic techno ballets such as Dundas Ontario. and James' Second Haircut. These contrast with jarring moments such as the sinister noises and the soft beat of Children Play Well Together or the videogame-like chaos of Lemon Yoghourt or the xylophone-like carillon of found sounds of Webers. There are also surges of rhythm such as the pounding guitar-drums-piano barrage of Brandon and the loud tribal drumming of Tits And Ass. Perhaps the project mostly excels at jazztronica. Mammals Vs Reptiles is one of the few pieces in the entire repertory that succeeds at integrating minimalist repetition and jazz jamming. The swinging and dreamy Paul's Birthday adds a neoclassical harp and innovative beats. Schedules & Fares is a brainier attempt at fusing jazz and electronic dance styles such as drum'n'bass.

Snaith abandoned the experimental edge of his debut album for a more nostalgic Brian Wilson-ian multi-layered retro-pop approach on Up In Flames (Leaf, 2003), replete with all sorts of vintage equipment (from Farfisa organs to glockenspiels). The songs with vocals introduce a clever disciple of Magnetic Fields. I've Lived On A Dirt Road All My Life harkens back to the early psychedelic age, with dilated vocals, wavering keyboards and rumbling drums. Jacknuggeted and Crayon are de facto highly creative remixes of musical stereotypes of the hippie era, each deformed by an alien element (respectively, massive organ drones and tinkling xylophone notes). Hendrix with KO hums the melody for a minute before David Gilmour-ian whispers percolate through the lattice of harp, flute, tribal percussions and hand-claps.
Snaith performs some acts of pure magic. The instrumental Skunks is catchy despite the fact that the piano melody never really happens and most of the action is in the bouncy rhythms and an atonal saxophone. The dense, driving textures of the two instrumentals Kid You'll Move Mountains and Bijoux replicate the spirit of Phil Spector's "wall of sound", although they mostly dispense with the melodic leitmotif. The eight-minute hodge-podge of Every Time She Turns Round It's Her Birthday sounded like an attempt to throw in all the ideas that had been left out of the album, notably the jazztronica at drum'n'bass pace of the first album.
A reappropriation of the traditional song format and moderate doses of eccentricity coined a new form of anti-pop elegance. Compared with the brainy stance of the debut album, the second album feels more spontaneous and sincere, although it was the result of a painstaking process of studio collage.

The EP Yeti (Domino, 2005) inaugurated Dan Snaith's new project, Caribou (the change of name was actually due to a lawsuit by Dick Manitoba of the Dictators). Caribou's first full-length, The Milk Of Human Kindness (Leaf, 2005), was almost as dramatic a change in style as the second Manitoba album had been compared with the first one. Snaith opted for a brainy dream-pop sound that fleshed out his classic sense of melody while drowning it in neurotic pulsations, post-psychedelic arrangements and pre-industrial deconstruction. The result is colder than on any of the previous albums, where joyful creativity prevailed. While the program is bookended by two episodes that still display bits of Manitoba's exuberant mood (the tribal crescendo of Barnowl and especially the baroque whirlwind of Yeti), the most ambitious pieces, almost all instrumentals (the looping and almost Bach-ian fugue Lord Leopard, the Bo Diddley-ian blues progression of Bees that turns into a drumming cataclysm, the drum'n'bass locomotive of Brahminy Kite, the nostalgic carillon over hip-hoppish beats of Pelican Narrows), feed on a form of ordered chaos, availing themselves of a broader stylistic palette as well as of more sophisticated montage techniques. This peaks with the seven-minute instrumental A Final Warning, a hypnotic dance propelled by Neu's motorik rhythm and the tropical-dadaistic spirit of the Fugs's Virgin Forest. The album is dominated by rhythm, the drums being de facto the lead instrument. Each piece is basically a series of musical inventions over some rhythmic idea.

Start Breaking My Heart and Up In Flames were re-released under the name Caribou due to the lawsuit.

Snaith, who had graduated in Mathematics, indulged in more ambitious forms of collage on Andorra (Merge, 2007). The album marked yet another change in direction, transforming Caribou into a necrophiliac exercise of Sixties revival. Each and every "song" is, first and foremost, a kaleidoscopic prysm of sound, starting with the catchy and retro Melody Day (falsetto aria, exuberant tempo, atmospheric piano, cosmic flutes) and the lush, symphonic Desiree. The acid textures, bluesy rhythm and Middle-eastern touches of Eli, the serenade She's The One, built out of minimalist repetition and orchestral flourishes, the vocal magic of Sandy (contrasting a background of loud drumming and mellow noises) are but stages in the pilgrimage towards the wildly surrealistic Sundialing (a celestial chant obscured by Neu-like "motorik" drumming) and the nine-minute Niobe. This is an anticlimactic fantasy, that opens in a rather inconclusive manner, with several instruments (including synthesizer) weaving a discordant tapestry, and the vocals piercing through it in a religious tone. When the rhythm picks up, it becomes a space-rock juggernaut. These artistic peaks give new meaning to the whole operation. It is only the increased use of vocals that makes it sound like Snaith is veering towards the song format of the Sixties. In reality, the vocals are merely one of the many elements that he layers one against the other to achieve the exact opposite.

Swim (Merge, 2010) was Caribou's psychedelic dance album. Not particularly original, but painstakingly architected. Odessa, a tribal shuffle reminiscent of the Rolling Stones' Sympathy for the Devil, is catchy and disco-friendly. The bubbling, jumping frenzy of Sun, a mini-symphony of loops and crescendoes raided by a church organ, and Kaili, a trip of exotic percussion that ends in a stoned Robert Wyatt-ian merry-go-round, constitute the peaks of montage. The rest is divided between 1980s dejavu (notably the industrial polyrhythm and synth-pop litany of Found Out) and generic disco stereotypes (Hannibal). The most ambitious moment can be found in the percussion metamorphosis of Bowls from booming dubstep to Brazilian batucada via warped Tibetan bowls and in the soul phantasmagoria of Jamelia (with Luke Lalonde of Born Ruffians on vocals).

Dan Snaith was also active as a dj under the moniker Daphni, as documented on Jiaolong (2012).

Caribou's Our Love (City Slang, 2014) is another painful listen. The looping dub chant Can't Do Without You is creative and original compared with the languid soul ballad Silver, and the latter is the archetype for much of what comes next: muffled electronic beats, elegant synth lines, polished surfaces, trivial melodies, and not a note that betrays the slightest emotion. Second Chance is implacable in repeating this pattern over and over again. All I Ever Need is emblematic: it adopts the round bouncing tones of synth-pop, but with no melodic refrain, and therefore sounds more akin to lounge music, soft jazz and new-age music than anything else. After fumbling for a couple of minutes, Our Love simply delves into old-school techno. The instrumental Mars doesn't even try to sound intelligent: it sticks to old-school ambient techno for chill rooms. The sell-out to commercial dance music is complete with Your Love Will Set You Free. Great studio skills coupled with a total dearth of inspiration make for a harrowing combination.

Daphni's Joli Mai (2017) is amateurish dance music.

After six years, Dan Snaith resurrected Caribou for another artsy and varied album, Suddenly (2020). The range of styles and moods is vast, from Sister, which sounds like a catatonic Cat Stevens, to the deep-house jam Ravi; from the moronic dance-pop ballad You and I to the funk-jazz instrumental Lime; from the deranged synth-pop of New Jade to the tropical house music of Never Come Back; from Like I Loved You, which sounds like an anemic bossanova, to the feathery ambient pop of Magpie (with the best instrumental carillon). There is no question about Snaith's studio skills: just witness how he deconstructs and reconstructs Gloria Barnes's Home (1971). Missing are the emotion and the energy.

Daphni's Cherry (2022) is another album of mediocre house music, although not as simplistic as on Joli Mai, as proven by the seven-minute Cloudy.

(Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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